EDMONTON, ALBERTA – He’s a baby-faced 23-year-old rookie who helped save a Wild season that easily could have gone belly-up, but Darcy Kuemper’s road to the NHL hasn’t been fast-tracked.
Kuemper, who started 12 consecutive games before an Olympic break that officially ends Thursday night with a game against the Oilers, had to maturely accept being returned to junior hockey when he already was 20. Then, after finally turning pro at 21, he spent time developing in the low-level East Coast Hockey League.
A year ago, Kuemper thought he was on the verge of being traded; and this season he had a rocky first six weeks.
“It’s just part of the development process,” the happy-go-lucky Kuemper said of his winding road to the Wild cage.
This is why teammates love him. He bounces into the locker room between periods and apologizes if he gave up a bad goal. He’s the type of guy who, after giving up three goals on seven shots in a game the Wild dominated in Toronto, stood in front of his locker stall waiting to face the music from reporters.
“That was a game we deserved to win, so there was nothing to hide,” Kuemper said of the Oct. 15 start. “It didn’t show who I was as a goalie. It was just a bad game. I had to admit it.”
Kuemper could best be described as he describes himself: almost “un-goalie-like.”
On game days, many men who play hockey’s loneliest position want to be left alone.
Not Kuemper. If it wasn’t against Wild policy, he would gladly conduct media interviews on game mornings. He yuks it up with teammates and takes part in the team’s pregame soccer hackysack matches.
Keeping it loose
“Every team I’ve played on, usually the starter, especially on a gameday, you don’t really go around him,” said veteran Dany Heatley, an NHLer since 2001. “But Kuemps is around, hanging out, telling jokes, telling stories. And when it’s time to play, he’s ready to go.
“He’s a fun kid. He comes to the rink everyday smiling all day. That’s part of the reason he’s been so good for us. He keeps calm in the net, and whatever happens doesn’t seem to faze him. It rubs off on the rest of us.”
How does he do it?
“Well, it’s partly my personality to goof around,” said Kuemper, a native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where his father, Brent, is a police officer and his mother, Sharon, is an accountant. “But in junior, obviously, you’re trying to find what works for you. My first few years of junior, I’d try to focus the moment I woke up, and I’d just be tight when the game came around.
“To play my best, I just need to stay loose until I get to the rink and you start going through your routine. Then when it’s time to go — maybe an hour before warmups, you turn on the focus, get into the zone and visualize the game coming up. It gets my head into it.”
General Manager Chuck Fletcher gives former head scout Tommy Thompson and current Wild scouts Guy Lapointe and Paul Charles credit. In 2009, the men saw enough of Kuemper during a 21-25-8 junior season for Red Deer of the Western Hockey League to select him in the sixth round, three rounds after they took another goalie, Matt Hackett.
After a 28-win season for Red Deer in 2009-10, the Wild returned Kuemper for another season, over-age at 20.
“It was very tough news,” Kuemper said. “Obviously, everyone wants to turn pro as soon as they can.”
It was the best thing that could have happened.
“That’s when he really found himself,” said former Red Deer teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick who might face Kuemper on Thursday with the Oilers.
Kuemper went 45-12-5 with a 1.86 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. He was Western Hockey League Player of the Year and Canadian Hockey League Goalie of the Year.
“I ended up winning a bunch of awards, but it was more the process of learning to be the go-to guy,” Kuemper said. “[If the Wild signed me], I probably would’ve felt my way through my first year pro. But instead I opened up a whole lot of eyes, showing myself and a lot of other people what I was capable of.”
Kuemper turned pro for the 2011-12 season, platooning with Hackett in Houston of the American Hockey League. To keep his development from stalling, Kuemper played games in the lower-level ECHL sporadically for two seasons.
“That was another tough thing to swallow,” Kuemper said. “The East Coast isn’t where you want to be.”
Getting his shot
It became clear at some point the Wild would parlay Hackett or Kuemper in a trade for immediate help. That day came April 3, 2013, when Hackett was included in a package to get Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville. That morning, Kuemper, in Houston, was told to pack his bag and hustle to the airport. He wasn’t told where he was going. He knew it was the NHL’s trade deadline.
“It was a lot of unknown,” Kuemper said. “I didn’t know what to bring. Just tried to stay calm. There’s nothing that you can do. It’s out of your control.”
After hanging out at the drop-off area, Kuemper finally got a call to “come to San Jose. You’re backing up tonight” for the Wild.
Hackett has struggled for the Sabres’ AHL team in Rochester, N.Y.
The 6-5 Kuemper, with Josh Harding sidelined indefinitely and Niklas Backstrom laboring through injuries, is 8-2-2 in his past 13 Wild starts with a 2.18 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
“What set Darcy apart, he’s got great size, but he’s also got great athleticism,” Fletcher said. “Look at the way he catches the puck, the way he skates, the way he plays the puck. He brings a lot of strengths to his game that not every goaltender has.”
Kuemper had poor outings in Toronto and Montreal to start this season, and some questioned whether the Wild traded the wrong goalie. But he went to Iowa (the Wild moved its top affiliate from Houston to Des Moines this season) and got back to basics. It translated when he got another shot with the Wild, starting with a 39-save victory in Los Angeles on Jan. 7.
Up to the challenge
There have been tense moments this season.
On Nov. 23, he was demoted when Backstrom was able to return from a concussion. Kuemper checked his luggage and cleared customs at the Winnipeg airport, then got a frazzled phone call 20 minutes before the Wild’s game to return to the arena because Harding left because of leg spasms.
On Dec. 23, Kuemper was scheduled to start the Wild’s game in Philadelphia but was injured playing for Iowa on Dec. 21.
“I was dying to get another chance,” he said. “It was for the best in the long run. It allowed me to heal.”
He hasn’t looked back.
“We’re lucky to have a guy like him,” teammate Charlie Coyle said. “It was kind of shaky time, both goalies going down. We’re kind of scrambling. He comes in and he plays great for us. He stepped up big time.”
Kuemper was riding high before the Olympic break. The new challenge is rediscovering that game after a three-week hiatus.
“I like his attitude,” coach Mike Yeo said. “He wants the net. He’s a young guy and he’s not content, he’s not satisfied with anything that’s happened. He wants more.”